Emotional trauma, especially traumatic events in childhood, can rewire the brain to create innate reactions like panic, terror, anger, etc. in potentially similar situations. Psychologically speaking, it’s the most basic form of self-preservation. Shortly after I got married, deep, old wounds re-opened, and I knew I would have a rough road ahead.
When I was 16, I was sexually abused by my best friend.
He was the boy next door, my first love, first kiss. We dated on and off during our innocent years when dating meant holding hands and sharing an ice cream cone. He had such a strong and alluring personality; everyone liked him and I was in awe to be the apple of his eye. Maybe it was because of my parents’ divorce, but I always took every opportunity to show those around me how kind and considerate and loving I was. After all, if my parents could give up on our family after 18 years of marriage, what did that say about me and my short years on earth? But if everyone always liked me, then no one would want to leave me, right?
It was a bright summer day, and the movie we were watching at his house had ended. He started talking about wanting to take our relationship “to the next level.” I always insisted that I didn’t. And he would drop the subject.
But this day he wouldn’t leave it alone.
He kept asking and pleading and begging.
And I kept saying no.
So he came closer and started caressing me.
And I said no.
He told me how much he loved me and how much he wanted to show me love. And I started to wonder why this conversation was still happening.
And I said no.
Then he started demanding that this was the only way to express his love for me. My resolve began to waiver. I could see him getting frustrated. I so desperately wanted him to love me, but just not like that. Anything but that. I didn’t have a special chastity pledge or promise ring. I didn’t go to church, so it didn’t matter to me that I save myself for marriage. Sex just felt like a big deal to me and I knew I wasn’t ready. But he clearly was.
Hesitating, I said no.
But then he slowly started to take my clothes off. I was screaming at myself to just get up and walk away. No one was holding me down or forcing me to be there. There were so many exit strategies I saw in that moment. But I was frozen. I was paralyzed with fear that I couldn’t control.
But I still said, “No. I don’t want to do it right now.”
“Come on girl, it’ll feel so good. I love you.”
Could he even hear me? Did he care? It all felt so hopeless. It was very clear that sex was what he was after and he wasn’t going to stop until he got it.
So I just stopped saying anything and just laid there.
It hurt. It was awful. But a piece of my soul died in that moment, and my body just shut down. I was stoic; I just waited for him to be done so I could leave.
I went home and cried.
In that moment and for many years after I felt dirty. I felt guilty. What if I had just left? What if I kept saying no? What if I were stronger??
I felt weak.
If my voice didn’t matter, why would any other part of me?
It became ingrained in me that day that if I wanted to be truly and deeply loved, I had to give myself sexually to a man, because I came to believe that sex was all men wanted anyway and that’s where my worth was.
But I couldn’t tell anyone what happened. Not my friends, and certainly not my parents. I kept telling myself that I was stupid and it was my own fault. I could have done so many things to make sure he didn’t have sex with me. My own inner monologue was more than I could handle, so I couldn’t have taken that same ridicule from another person. I couldn’t stand the thought of my parents being angry with me, because I knew that was the only emotion they would have after I told them what I’d done, or rather, what I didn’t do. They left each other, and I needed to hold onto any shred of reason why they shouldn’t leave me too. I spiraled into a deep depression, that frankly, I don’t remember a thing about. I don’t even know what snapped me out of it. I just somehow moved on. Or so I thought.
Looking back at all my behaviors in my teen and college years, it is clear to see that I was terrified.
Terrified of men.
I would get secret anxiety attacks when a man would stand too close to me, or look at me too long.
Terrified of anyone getting angry at me.
I would shut down at the first hint of disappointment.
Terrified of being disliked.
Anytime I felt I was getting close to failing a friend, I would collapse into a self-deprecating cycle and make up for any possible wrong-doing until they expressed their undying love and friendship.
Terrified of being alone.
Nights were always hard. The silence was deafening and I crumpled under the crushing weight of my racing thoughts.
Terrified of being forgotten.
They say time heals all wounds. But really, time just covers up all wounds, and until you can properly deal with all those challenging emotions, it will all come bubbling back up when you least expect it.
Starting a new chapter.
By the time I met my husband I had seen counselors and dealt with the obvious emotions that were huddled on the surface. I was a new woman and resolved to save myself for marriage. I had sex in every previous relationship and knew it caused a destructive cycle. I had fought hell and high water to be all things to all people, and I knew it wasn’t healthy for me.
I instantly knew my husband was different from every other man I’d ever met. He was a college kid who had shaped his entire career plans on what would be best for a family someday. I wanted so desperately to be that family, and I knew I had to stick to my newfound resolve to stand a chance. He was kind and respectful. It was refreshing. I knew he was the one.
Before we got married, I suspected there might be some tough emotions that would surface. My husband was very upfront from the beginning of our relationship about his struggles with pornography addiction, and when we were dating (and even after getting married) he still struggled and fell back into that trap on occasion. I was also very transparent and he knew all about my past abuse and the emotional struggles that resulted.
But it wasn’t until our “honeymoon phase” was over that I realized we had some very serious issues to work out. The porn industry showed him that sex was all about domination, and my history showed me that sex was about being submissive, no matter the cost. Needless to say, his addiction directly played into my biggest fears. Every time we were intimate, I would re-live that horrid summer day. Emotionally, I was thrown back 10 years and felt small and powerless and worthless. And then I felt guilty because I knew that my husband was absolutely nothing like him. My husband is kind, respectful, thoughtful, playful, and his deepest desire is to see me safe, healthy, and happy.
But every time I tried to talk about it, my voice couldn’t find the words, and I was rendered silent once again. Neither one of us knew how to bring it up, so the issue got skirted every time and that just made things even tougher. We were a mess, and that’s putting it lightly. Everyone always asked us how we were enjoying married life, and I had to lie through my teeth. Because it sucked. That first year of marriage was, by far, the absolute worst.
And then things changed.
There was never a big moment or book or weekend-long marriage seminar that made things better. Instead, the changes were small and subtle and happened over time. We slowly navigated the murky waters of sins and abuse one tear-soaked conversation at a time. It was hard to put words to big emotions I couldn’t even explain to myself.
I saw a therapist and met with older women who had been married much longer and opened up to close friends. For the first time in my life I was very open and transparent about the day I was raped. I had to be if I was going to explain the issues in my marriage. And instead of ridicule, I was met with hearts broken for the innocent girl that was lost that day. I had come to know that it wasn’t my fault, but for the first time, it was clear that other people knew I wasn’t to blame either. I was taken aback at how surprised I was by that. My heart softened and allowed me to see that I still held onto lies as if they were truth.
So, I kept talking. The more I talked about it, the bigger my voice got. And the bigger my voice got, the stronger my mind became. And the stronger my mind became, the more whole my heart felt. And the more whole my heart felt, the clearer I saw myself through my husband’s eyes.
He sees me as beautiful.
And the clearer I saw myself through his eyes, the more I saw those qualities in myself. And only once I was able to see myself for what I truly am – and not the lies I had come to believe – did I really start to feel healed.
My husband’s unconditional love for me was a picture of how women were meant to be loved: he cherishes me instead of controlling me. He honors and respects me rather than overpowering me. He sees me as an end instead of a means to an end.
When love – true, pure love – is mature in us, it drives out fear. Fear is crippling.
But there is no room for fear when you are grounded in love.
With the help of my husband’s loving devotion to me and our marriage, I was able to truly see and love myself, and the fear that had held me for so long lessened with every passing day.
Trauma of this magnitude is never something that can be fully healed. Even as I write this my pulse is quickening, breath is shortening, and sweat is accumulating on my brow. And there are still people close to me who don’t know this story. Why bring it up now, after all these years?
But I know this is a story that needs to be told.
Because I am choosing to use my voice to shatter the silence.
One out of six women is sexually assaulted in her lifetime. One out of every six. And maybe that’s you. If not, I guarantee it’s someone you’re close with. But we are more than a statistic. We are more than the lies our circumstances have led us to believe.
I need you, my friend, to know the truth today.
You are Beautiful.
You are Strong.
You are Courageous.
You are Compassionate.
You, my friend, are Worthy.
I sincerely pray that’s how you see yourself today, no matter who you are or what your story has been. And if it’s not, know that there’s help.